Activating Prior Knowledge for ELLs: 7 Activities to Make Learning Meaningful
All students bring their unique backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge to the classroom. This prior knowledge, sometimes called background knowledge or schema, is foundational to the ability to learn new information.
Activating prior knowledge involves two processes: identifying what students already know and then building the background knowledge necessary for accessing instructional content. This strategy is beneficial to all students, but it is particularly helpful for English language learners (ELLs).
Our ELLs have unique and diverse life experiences. As we tap into our ELLs’ prior knowledge, we can close the gap between what they know and what we want them to know—helping them master new content more easily.
Keep reading to learn about the importance of activating prior knowledge, planning tips for building background knowledge, and examples of schema-building activities.
What Does Research Say About Background Knowledge?
Countless studies have confirmed the important role that well-developed schema plays in acquiring new information.
Psychologists at Carnegie Mellon determined that it’s easier to learn something new when we can connect it to something that we already know.
According to Lynne Reder, professor of psychology, “This [study] has implications for how to optimize instruction, specifically that concepts should be introduced to students in a way that they have a good grasp and familiarity with those concepts before trying to combine them into more complex informational structures.”
Research from Deborah Short and Jane Echevarria, developers of the SIOP Model for English learner instruction, demonstrates that background knowledge is key for English learners to acquire academic language.
In education, schemas are the building blocks for learning. When you’re introducing new information to a diverse student body, tapping into their experiences will help create a bridge to make learning both meaningful and accessible for them.
Building Background Knowledge for ELLs
Building prior knowledge for your English learners includes research and intention when planning your lessons. The following steps can help you to be strategic in both activating and strengthening your students’ schema ahead of your lessons.
Identify key background knowledge needed for understanding
In this step, ask yourself the following questions:
- What key concepts do students need to know to understand this lesson?
- Are there any cultural references that my ELLs may not know?
- What vocabulary is needed to understand the content?
Determine your students’ existing prior knowledge
It is important to remember that your strategies for identifying your ELLs’ background knowledge should align with your students’ language levels.
Newcomers may feel more comfortable representing their knowledge through drawings or identifying visuals, whereas students with higher language proficiency may choose to write their responses. Consider the following strategies:
- Allow students to communicate with their peers in their native language. You may also consider using translation apps to assist in communication.
- Use graphic organizers to identify what your students already know about a topic. Encourage your ELLs to share what they know using drawings or other visual representations.
Find culturally relevant resources
When choosing books for your classroom, take some time to evaluate the background of the author. Not only does this ensure authentic storytelling, but it also provides opportunities for students of diverse backgrounds to make connections with the text.
Consider going beyond the textbook to ensure culturally responsive instruction.
When considering first-person resources, Dr. Cynthia Lundgren and Giselle Lundyh-Ponce offer a word of caution:
“Consult more than one internet or library source and do not expect a student to be your sole ‘ambassador’ or resource for finding out about a whole culture or ethnic background. Multiple sources are always a good idea for formulating knowledge about a particular subject.
More importantly, do not put a particular student on the spot without asking them beforehand if they are comfortable sharing information with the whole class. Each student is an individual and their experiences may or may not be similar to that of the group they represent.”
7 Activities for Activating Prior Knowledge
Activating your students’ prior knowledge can take many different forms—the creative possibilities are endless. The best strategies for activating background knowledge are meaningful, authentic, and engaging.
We’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite activities for building background knowledge for ELLs; however, native speakers will also benefit from these activities. Many of the activities below can be used for any grade level or subject area (with some adaptations).
Realia is a term used to describe real-life objects that can be used to teach a concept or idea. Not only do concrete objects ignite curiosity, they can deepen students’ understanding of concepts.
Realia offers students an authentic, memorable experience for learning. Using realia is one of the best ways to support language acquisition for ELLs.
If your lesson doesn’t lend itself to bringing in concrete objects, consider using pictures instead. Picture dictionaries are an excellent resource for students to build vocabulary and strengthen connections.
When realia isn’t an option, visuals are your next best tool. All students benefit from multiple modalities of instruction, but visuals are especially powerful for ELLs.
Display a relevant, meaningful image to the class before the lesson begins. Use questioning to help students use higher-order thinking skills.
Depending on your content and grade level, some of the following questions may be used:
- What is the person thinking? What makes you say that?
- What are they feeling? Why do you think that?
- What type of person do you think is shown in the photograph? What makes you say that?
- Why did the photographer take the photo? Why do you think that?
- What happened right before the photo was taken? What makes you say that?
- What happened right after the photo was taken? Why?
- What time of year do you think this photograph was taken? Why?
- What do the details of the image suggest?
- What are the social, economic, political, and/or historical implications of the image?
Anticipation guides help teachers formatively assess what students know before a lesson. As a reading comprehension strategy, they help students set a purpose for reading as well as pique their curiosity.
These can be adapted to any grade or language level, but the key is to keep them short and simple. Write four to six statements about key ideas in your lesson. Create a mix of true/false and yes/no questions and have students answer before you teach.
For English learners, you’ll need to differentiate according to their language proficiency. You may have them complete the guides verbally or modify the number of statements you include.
After the lesson, have the students revisit the anticipation guides to evaluate their learning. Reading Rockets offers examples of different types of anticipation guides for various subjects.
You are likely already familiar with the concept of a picture walk. Get students moving and incorporate kinesthetic activity by creating a “Picture Walk-the-Room.”
Instead of having students flip through their textbook or storybook, post pictures around the room for students to preview ahead of a lesson. Students can walk through the classroom with a partner, discussing the images.
At the end of the picture walk, students can write their ideas on sticky notes and place them on the whiteboard. As a class, review the ideas before and after your lesson.
This activity can be adapted to different grade levels or content areas. Teaching science? Post pictures of a plant life cycle around the room. Teaching language arts? Post pictures from your read-aloud and have students make predictions or inferences.
Depending on your objective, this activity can be done with photos or cards with words printed on them. Students can work in a whole group, in small groups, or in pairs to complete.
If you’re teaching the concept of seasons, gather a selection of photos to represent the four seasons. If you’re teaching vocabulary words, choose a group of key terms from the text.
You may want to provide students with categories ahead of the activity or you may do an open sort, where students put the cards into meaningful groups. There are benefits to either strategy, however, student-created groups can offer important insight into your students’ existing schema.
Similar to a picture walk, this strategy helps students strategically preview a text before the lesson. This strategy works especially well for nonfiction texts, which use features such as headers, boldface terms, and definitions.
Point out text features and have students skim the text, focusing specifically on these features. Have students note anything that stands out to them.
You can help students make connections to previous learning by pairing this activity with a graphic organizer like a K-W-L chart. This activity can also help to reduce the cognitive load for English learners by focusing only on limited aspects of the text.
An alphabet brainstorm is a quick and easy way to activate prior knowledge before a lesson. As a bonus, it can also help to reinforce letter knowledge for newcomers and early readers.
Display a table with a cell for each letter of the alphabet. Present students with the topic of your lesson and give them time to think about what they already know. After about five minutes, have students pair up and share the ideas that they generated.
Ask students to share and fill out the alphabet grid as a whole group. Depending on the number of students in your class, their language proficiency, and the topic, this activity could be modified in several ways. You may include less than 26 cells or have students complete the activity in pairs.
Activating prior knowledge is key to bridging the gap between what students already know and what we want them to learn. By recognizing the importance of prior knowledge, we can create a more inclusive and equitable learning environment that empowers ELLs to succeed in their academic journey.
Structured activities in listening, reading, writing, and speaking help English language learners (ELLs) develop grade-level academic language needed for classroom success.View Product →